Guest Reviewer Marieke reviews Summer of Salt by Katrine Leno

[this review contains plot spoilers and discussion of rape]

The first half of this novel reads like a landscape painting and the second half reads like a murder mystery featuring an emotional climax, with a sweet but slightly underdeveloped romance sprinkled throughout. In a town on a small nondescript island, magic and salt are always in the air. Georgina Fernweh is the twin sister to Mary, and she’s the only living Fernweh whose magic has apparently not yet manifested itself. This, combined with the fact she’ll leave the island for the very first time when she turns 18 in late August, means her summer is set for the perfect coming-of-age tale.

The first half of the book mostly concerns itself with worldbuilding and character introductions. While the absence of a strict plot makes for slower pacing, it’s done gorgeously and allows the reader to immerse themselves in the life of Georgie. We get to follow the relationships and quirky behaviours of Georgie and Mary (who could not be more polar opposites), their mother, and the cook (the Fernwehs run a B&B) as they prepare for the tourist season. We meet some minor local characters, some of whom endear themselves immediately (best friend and proud aro/ace Vira) and some of whom leave a bad taste in the mouth (side-eyes Nice Guy™ Peter).

Over the course of the book a sweet romance blossoms between Georgie and Prue (one of the tourists), with some adorable hiccups: while Georgie is out (alternately using ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ to describe herself), she still needs to figure out if Prue is interested in women. Prue explains she’s only known she’s not straight for about a year and she doesn’t use a label for herself, but she’s definitely attracted to men and women. In a lovely montage of Georgie coming out to those she cares about individually, all of them accept her, but she also realises that she doesn’t know what Prue’s life off the island is like. This is the clearest indication that Prue is unfortunately underdeveloped as the main romantic interest.

At the midway point there’s a very stark shift in tone [minor spoilers moving forward] as the island discovers the murdered body of their main attraction, 300-year-old bird Arabella. Suddenly rain won’t stop pouring down, to the point that the weather becomes a character of its own. Mary is acting strangely, and most everybody suspects her of killing Arabella. Georgie teams up with Prue’s brother to prove Mary’s innocence, which makes for a budding friendship. While this half is more action-driven, it never loses the magical tone or the family focus which form the heart of the story. As the murder mystery format dictates, there is a final unveiling, and it is not a pleasant one. I’ll leave you to discover the details in the book, but [major spoiler] Peter raped Mary. [end major spoiler]. Leno treats this topic with great care. It was painful to see Mary turn completely into herself and disappear, so her choice to eventually share what happened to her becomes all the more poignant. As a result, the reader is presented with a bittersweet ending in Mary’s resolution and an open-ended conclusion for Georgie and Prue.

I wish we could have explored the various minor characters a bit more, especially Prue and Vira and the ways they care about Georgie and the island. Still, this does not take away the fact that The Summer of Salt is a lovely book with an oddball murder mystery, vibrant background characters, so many different types of female connections, a great boy & girl friendship, wlw and lesbian and aroace representation, organic integration of magic, and gorgeous worldbuilding.

Marieke (she / her) has a weakness for fairy tale retellings and contemporary rom coms, especially when combined with a nice cup of tea. She also shares diverse reading resources on her blog letsreadwomen.tumblr.com

Guest Lesbrarian Jess H. reviews Birds of a Feather by Jackie Calhoun

Birds of a Feather by Jackie Calhoun is one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read.  And no, I haven’t read The Well of Loneliness.  It is hard for me to think of a single moment of joy in Calhoun’s contemporary romance (published 1999).  I use the term “romance” loosely, because romance seems to be as absent as joy is.

In the story, we follow Joan McKenzie, a divorcee nearing fifty whose first relationship with a woman has ended.  She lives in Wisconsin, works two jobs to make ends meet, and enjoys birdwatching and spending time with her dog Yeller in her off hours.  While she’d like to find love again, she feels conflicted about which woman she wants to pursue and the type of relationship she would like to have.  She is intrigued by enigmatic, bisexual Linda. Sturdy, sporty Liz is a friend of Linda’s who also captures Joan’s attention. And then there is her longtime best friend Diane, who is in a committed relationship with Tania, but for whom Joan has undeniable feelings.

Overall Joan’s life feels stagnant and purposeless, which I initially assumed was intentional on Calhoun’s part.  However, there is no character arc to be found here. Joan remains in precisely the same directionless, unfulfilled place when the novel ends as she was at its beginning.  The extreme stagnancy of Joan’s life translates onto the page and makes for a suffocating, almost hopeless, read. It doesn’t help that Calhoun devotes lots of page time to mundane details such as what people ate, the specific make and model of their vehicles, etc.  It’s a short novel, but I didn’t find it to be a particularly quick read and I had no trouble setting it aside to read other things. The level of dramatic tension is not high.

One of the reasons I was not drawn into the book was because I did not find Joan to be a particularly relatable (or, at times, even likable) character.  I didn’t fully understand the motivations for her actions, and she could be snippy with her friends and downright selfish in her romantic pursuits. I was rooting for her to find happiness, but I didn’t find her to be a particularly engaging character and following her life was a claustrophobic experience at times.

As you can probably tell, I would not recommend Birds of a Feather.  The writing is grammatically sound and the book is readable (I did make it through to the end).  What it is not, however, is enjoyable. Worst of all, it offers what I found to be a dim, gray, bleak portrait of lesbian life.  Readers seeking positive portrayals of sapphic women and relationships should definitely look elsewhere.

(2 stars)

Jess H. is a late blooming Gen Xer who came out in her 30s.  She enjoys reading lesbian literature to further explore her identity, works as a consultant in the IT field, and keeps such a low profile online that she can’t readily be found on social media.

Guest Lesbrarian Spencer reviews Lady Knight by L-J Baker

ladyknight

At first I was really getting into Lady Knight. I liked that it was medieval, with knights and epic battles. I was getting this whole Game of Thrones feel (even though I have only seen the show), since that show, too, had a large female knight that takes no crap.

I can’t even say I didn’t enjoy the book. It takes a little while to get the romance started, but it’s very clear who it will be between. Once it gets started, you feel for the two characters, as they are unsure of each other’s feelings and they both care for each other so much that neither wishes to risk the friendship for their feelings. But they do, and some very subtle sex scenes ensue. All in all, for a romance novel especially, there was not enough sex. I did like what sex and intimacy was there, but there was not enough sex.

Also, the author used some words in an interesting context. I think perhaps they were going for antiquated uses of certain words, but really it just left the modern reader kind of confused as to what the author meant, as I know I certainly don’t use those words those ways.

[spoilers/trigger warning follow]

[trigger warning for rape] My main complaint with Lady Knight however, was the surprise rape. Late in the story, one of the main characters has to marry, as her widowhood is no longer profitable for the realm. Her lover, the other main character, gives her a magic ring to make her new husband impotent so that she will not have to be bedded. So there is the hint or possibility that she may have to sleep with her husband that as the reader you can accept, however, it is then the new husband’s ill-tempered brutish son that decides to rape her because he believes her to be wonton. There is no evidence of this, it just happens randomly some 20 pages before the end of the book and then the two main characters simply leave and the story ends.

I could have (and mostly did) forgive the other things I didn’t like in the book, but surprise rape in a story that didn’t need it isn’t fun. It felt like a cop out. Like the author simply created an easy out for her ending.

I wouldn’t recommend Lady Knight, but if you’re really desperate for a medieval story and can look past the rape, then give it a whirl.

Guest Lesbrarian: allis

Hooray, a guest lesbrarian! We haven’t had one of those for a while. This review is from allis, and you can find her on Livejournal here. Thanks, allis!

Women of Mystery: An Anthology by Katherine V. Forrest

As the title let it guess, all those stories have female lead character, usually lesbian character, and all the stories involve some kind of mystery. They are indeed all intriguing in their own way and pull the reader in right from the start and doesn’t let it go until the very end. There is no way you can stop in the middle of a story. You have to know how it ends, you have to know who killed who, why all those secrets, is she really a werewolf, etc…

The opening lines are really great and make you plunge into the story from the very first words as you can see in those few examples :

“I started to suspect she was a werewolf on our first date” (“Let Sleeping Cats Lie” by Jeane Harris)

“I need you to solve a mystery for me” (“The Intersection of Camp and St. Mary” by J.M. Redmann)

“The first time you get kidnapped can ruin your evening.” (“Two Left Shoes” by Carole Spearin McCauley)

The authors have all very different interpretations for the word “mystery” and you are sure to be surprised by some of them. There are classic crime, fantasy story, ghost story, family story, funny story, etc… No story is like another. As a fan a diversity when I read an anthology, I really enjoyed that part of the book.

Though well written most of the stories didn’t stick with me. I had to return to the first lines to remember what the story was about. This anthology is a quick read, ideal when you have to wait somewhere, in the train, or just want to read a bit of mystery at night.

It was a nice easy read, but it definitely is not an anthology I’ll remember much. But maybe it’s just because I’m not that much into mystery stories in general…

There was really only one story I didn’t like much. It was “Violation” by Victoria A. Brownworth. It’s not that it was badly written but I just didn’t like the theme of it much. I thought it was a bit more serious, a bit darker than the other stories too.

My favourites are “Elsie Riley” by Martha Miller for its atmosphere and really open ending, “Let Sleeping Cats Lie” by Jeane Harris for all its surprises, “House Built of Sticks” by J.L. Belrose for the family drama seen through the eyes of a child who doesn‘t really get all that is happening, “The Intersection of Camp and St. Mary” by J.M. Redmann for its humour and “Murder on Chuckanut Drive” by Ouida Crozier for its main character and general atmosphere.

I would rate this anthology 7/10.

Have you read Women of Mystery or something like it? What did you think of it?

Guest Lesbrarian: Emily

For Once, Being Gay Isn’t the Problem

Most lesbian literature to date, it seems, details the common struggles of coming out and of dealing with the consequences of being a homosexual in a heterosexual world. Not Ash, the new teen novel by former afterellen.com editor Malinda Lo.

A revisionist Cinderella novel complete with pagan holidays and faeries reminiscent of those rampant throughout Irish and British folklore, the novel is indeed a modern fairy tale. Instead of a submissive Cinderella, Ash is a rebellious teenager. Instead of getting wishes from a kind fairy godmother, Ash makes a deal with a dangerous fairy knight. But what at first appears to be the most significant twist, that Cinderella falls in love with a woman, is not. What is truly refreshing about this story is that her falling in love with a woman, not a man, doesn’t bother anybody.

“It was clear to me from the beginning that I didn’t want to have a world where there was homophobia,” said Lo in an interview with afterellen.com’s Heather Aimee O’Neill. “I decided to not make [homosexuality] an unusual thing.”

It’s easy to see, reading her book. Casual references to women loving women are sprinkled here and there throughout the text, and when you read that “a young couple stumbled away from the dance hand in hand, one woman dressed in gold, the other woman in green”, or that one character nonchalantly voices her opinion that Ash, the cinderella character, is one of the “many who would cast themselves as the huntress’s lover”, you begin to understand that in the world of Ash, there is no “gay” or “straight”. There is only love, and the gender of the person you love doesn’t matter.

“She has enough problems,” said Lo, without having to deal with a world discriminatory towards gays. It is the difference in class between Ash and her “true love” that rankles with her society, not the lack of difference in gender. While many factors impede the progress of their relationship, stigma associated with sexual orientation, for once, is not one of them.

Ash really is a fairy tale. A world in which being gay isn’t a problem—doesn’t that sound like happily ever after?

Interview with Malinda Lo, conducted by Afterellen’s Heather Aimee O’Neill on October 15th, 2009: http://www.afterellen.com/people/2009/10/malinda-lo

Lo, Malinda. Ash. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. p. 106

Lo, Malinda. Ash. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. p. 184

Interview with Malinda Lo, conducted by Afterellen’s Heather Aimee O’Neill on October 15th, 2009: http://www.afterellen.com/people/2009/10/malinda-lo

Thanks to Emily from Wacky Word Woman for this excellent guest review! I’ve been wanting to read Ash for a while, and this just moved it up the list. Definitely check out Emily’s blog. It’s new and awesome, but she doesn’t have a lot of followers yet.

Have you read Malinda Lo’s Ash? What did you think of it?

Guest Lesbrarian: Heather

We’ve got another Guest Lesbrarian today: Heather. She’s reviewing Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a lesbian classic.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson

I only recently discovered GoodReads (I know, it’s like I’ve been living under a rock!), and I’ve been reading lots of their lists.  It occurred to me that perhaps as a good lesbian I should try reading more gay fiction.  I’ve read some, of course (including Stone Butch Blues, which I shared a little bit about in my last Top Ten Post)  But really,  if I don’t want to have to give back my toaster oven I should have a passing knowledge of important works in the GLBT genre.

With that in mind I ordered Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson.  It is really a roman a clef of the author’s early years in Northern England.  The main character, Jeanette, is the adopted daughter of a fundamentalist Christian couple. Her mother adopted her in order to raise her up to give to the Lord as a missionary for His cause.  From early days, however, Jeanette shows that she is her own person and will not be forced into someone else’s ideas about what she should be.  As she grows up, she becomes  more and more rebellious-and she falls in love.  With a GIRL!  Let’s just say that her relationship with her mother really starts to go downhill after the failed exorcism…that’s right, they tried to exorcise the gay right out of her!

Winterson has a dry, witty sense of humor that makes what could be a tragic story of betrayal and loss into something altogether more powerful.  At not one point in the story did Jeanette doubt that God meant her to be the way she was.  The people in her church loved her, thought she had a calling to preaching and missionary work-until they found out she was gay.  Suddenly, the leadership decided that maybe women were getting above their true place in the church, and should no longer be allowed to preach.  Apparently Jeanette’s love for Katy convinced them that she was trying to be a man.  But not once did Jeanette waver in her belief that what she was and how she felt was as natural as loving the Lord, which she did with fervor.  Usually reading about religious fundamentalists makes me a little twitchy, but Winterson handled them in such a way that while I completely disagree with almost everything about the way they view life and God, I couldn’t help but accept and respect their humanity.  Jeanette says, at one point in the book, that she loved the Lord-it was some of his followers that she had problems with. She eventually finds her way out of the insular world she was raised in, first through her prodigious imagination, and finally by physically moving to the big city.  But she can’t completely leave behind her mother and her religious fervor.  The book concludes with Jeanette going home for Christmas to find her mother perched by the ham radio, networking with other born-again Christians for prayer, support, and most of all the conversion of the rest of us Godless souls.  Despite the new life Jeanette has found for herself, it is almost like she is comforted somehow by the idea that while she is off in the world, her mother stays behind, fighting other people’s demons one prayer request at a time.  I guess this is probably true of all of us.  No matter how much we may try to separate ourselves from where we come from, the fact remains that we carry those people and experiences around with us into every new town, new job, or new relationship that we have.

Thanks, Heather! I adore Jeanette Winterson, it’s good to see her getting some reviews. If you want to check out Heather’s book blog, it’s Book Addict’s Book Reviews.

Have you read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit or another Jeanette Winterson book? What did you think of it?

I’m always looking for more guest posts! If you’ve read a lesbrary (woman-loving-woman book) lately, go to the Guest Lesbrarians link and submit a review!

Guest Lesbrarian Stefanie reviews Marthy Moody by Susan Stinson

Welcome to our first Guest Lesbrarian post! This one is by Stefanie for lesbian writer Susan Stinson’s book Martha Moody, published in 1995. She also recommends some of Stinson’s  other fiction, including Venus of Chalk and Fat Girl Dances with Rocks. Please, send in your own guest lesbrarian review!

Susan Stinson’s Martha Moody is an extraordinary and evocative book. Set in the “Old West,” it tells a complex and uneasy story of two women loving each despite their familial and community commitments. I wanted this book to keep going, never to end, so that I could stay suspended in Stinson’s poetic voice.This book is unconventional in many ways (its characterizations, its lush language, its integration of stories within stories) and seeks to fully explore how two individuals choose and are forced to act within their social and personal circumstances. A gorgeous read.

Have you read any of Susan Stinson’s books? What did you think?